How “Awake” Could Have A Shot At Surviving

Worst case scenario: Awake’s pilot is an amazing 45 minutes of television. Best case scenario: it’s the beginning of a show that has the potential to help redefine the form and function of network serial drama.

Awake’s premise is deceptively easy to explain: Detective Michael Britten and his family get in a car accident. After the crash, Britten’s reality is seemingly split into two worlds, one where only he and his wife survived, and another where only he and his son did. Awake juggles these two universes effortlessly, throwing up signposts, such as Britten’s color coded wrist bands, so the audience will know what reality he’s currently experiencing. Still, a question constantly plagues the viewer: what is real?

I hope Awake’s answer is “you’ll never know”. In a meeting with one of his therapists (Britten has two, one in each reality), Britten confesses that he has no desire to ever know what’s real if it means he has to lose one of his family members. This is one of a few lines in the pilot that suggests Awake might not be out to solve the mystery that underlies its narrative. Instead, Awake might ask us to simply accept Britten’s curious circumstances as part of the storyworld in the same way that we accept True Blood’s Bon Temps is full of vampires and werepanthers and that The River’s Amazon is permeated by magic. I think this approach, if taken, will help Awake keep its head above the ratings water.

As I’ve discussed in recent posts and as others have endlessly debated, the recent flood of mythology driven shows on network TV is a double-edged sword. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s also amazing, but in more of a train wreck kind of way. While Awake’s creator Kyle Killen  is clearly a smart guy (his other show about a man with a double life, Lone Star, was short-lived but outstanding), and would probably be capable of spinning out a complicated mythology, I’m hoping he’s chosen not to. Awake as a mythology-based show would be difficult to sustain. How long could they keep the mystery engaging without coming to a conclusion? Awake as a procedural with a twist, on the other hand, is much easier to maintain.

Much of the pilot is devoted to two cases that Britten is trying to solve, one in each reality. His access to both realities becomes a kind of gift, a fresher version of the psychic ability that pops up in many cop dramas, that allows him insight into each of the crimes. As shows like CSI and NCIS demonstrate, the procedural angle is much more accessible for most viewers, which could help Awake find an audience. This doesn’t mean Awake has to lose its edge or intelligence, though. I think those qualities are part of the show’s DNA and will shine all the brighter couched in a procedural, which allows for more room for character development than a complicated mythology that demands as much attention as the characters.

Luckily, Awake has a deep well of complicated characters, situations, and relationships to plumb. To me, a character driven show about what  happens to a family dynamic when that family is split into two realities sounds much more interesting than answering why Britten is or isn’t crazy. I hope Awake is strong enough to not listen to the fans that clamor for the mystery to be solved, and if it chooses to ignore them, I hope the fans will be smart enough to realize what a good choice it was.

Other thoughts

Awake’s pilot is still free to watch online here.

Britten’s son, Rex, is a nice change from the likes of Josh on Terra Nova. Rex  is still a goofy name, though.

Jason Isaacs is an outstanding actor (duh), and I’m excited to see him on the small screen not playing a bad guy.

I have a major girl crush on Laura Allen. Who doesn’t, though?

Letting The Right One In: Identifying with ‘Enlightened’s’ Amy Jellicoe

If you’ve read my thoughts on the top ten shows of 2011, you know that I think HBO’s Enlightened is pretty good stuff. Starring recent Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Enlightened is billed as a comedy, but it’s the most heart-wrenching, cringe-worthy, rollercoaster “comedy” that I’ve ever seen. Each episode is like watching a car accident at varying speeds: dreamy slow-motion, desperate fast forward, and sometimes the pace of painful everyday life. And whose driving this out of control car? Amy Jellicoe.

Post nervous breakdown and treatment, Amy returns to rid her former life of its poison, literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, the world she returns to is not as responsive to her breathy assurances or laid-back attitude as she had hoped. In fact, it remains relatively intractable. Newly focused on environmentalism, activism, and sustainability, Amy chafes against her data entry job at her former employer, a company that knowingly sells toxic personal products to consumers. As she tries to change the company and her life, she encounters constant roadblocks that challenges her, and the viewer, to ask, “Can we really affect change?”

Watching Amy is painful, because, well, she’s Amy.  And she’s always Amy. Whether she was always oblivious to social cues and parameters or she has recently overlooked them as part of her new lifestyle is unknown (I suspect the latter), Amy blunders around like a brahma bull in the china shop. She is always late for work and constantly overstepping the boundaries of coworkers and loved ones in the hopes of reigniting former friendships and allies. Her genuineness drives people, and potentially viewers, away.

So how do we relate with an in-your-face character like Amy? It’s writing 101 that the audience has to identify with a character to engage with a show, book, movie etc. That doesn’t mean we have to like them. There are lots of detestable characters throughout history that have captured the attention of audiences. Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. Despite his perversity, we root for him. We admire his intellect and cunning, and sympathize with him when he’s treated with disdain by the prison officials. Of course, it helps that we don’t really see all the horrible things he’s done. But what about Amy? Do we admire her despite witnessing all her awkward, oblivious interactions?

Certainly, there are admirable things about Amy. She never gives up on her journey to change her life and the lives of others, even if that means swallowing her pride. But, at least for me, admiration is pretty low on my list of emotions I associate with Amy. At the top of list are: uncomfortable and frustrating.

So if I don’t strongly admire Amy, why do I stick with her, other than the rubbernecking desire to see how the car crash ends? It’s because I recognize traits that Amy and I share. It’s tough to swallow that I, or anyone watching, has anything in common with Amy. She’s a total disaster. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to be sucked into total despair. I don’t want to admit to myself that I’ve said and done awkward things in public that probably cause others around to judge me. I don’t want to admit to myself that I know what it’s like to yearn for strong human connections only to be rejected. But I do. I think we all do. And that’s why we stick with Amy.

It’s hard to realize that you identify with a character because of your shared flaws, but it’s a powerful link. You might push Amy away at first, but letting her in is cathartic. You may realize something new about yourself. And isn’t enlightenment what you, me, and Amy are all looking for?

In Defense of “New Girl” and Its Golden Globe Nomination or My Last Post on “New Girl”, I promise

New Girl is arguably the break out comedy hit of the Fall season. It might not have the strongest ratings, but it has the most buzz. It’s a show that polarizes its audience; you either love it or you hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Those who consider New Girl an all shtick-no-substance show will probably write its recent Golden Globe nomination for “Best Comedy” off as a bad pick, but I think there’s more to New Girl than hollow hijinks and made up terms like “adorkable” and “gumbo pod”.

Undeniably, much of New Girl’s hype is predicated on Deschanel. She is the draw and the deterrent for a large part of the show’s audience. Assumedly, those that are turned off by Deschanel never tuned in, but New Girl’s audience can’t be made up entirely of Deschanel devotees. In fact, a lot of Zooey D. fans gave New Girl a chance, but found it wasn’t for them. Just peruse the comment sections of New Girl recaps and you’ll see lots of “I gave it a shot for Zooey, but I can’t stand this show”. It’s clear that Deschanel isn’t the only thing dividing audiences. The other culprit? It’s Jess!

Let’s be honest, New Girl’s protagonist Jess Day isn’t much of a character, strictly speaking. She’s more of a caricature full of smiles, giggles, and eccentricities. A recent essay published in The New Inquiry readily points this out. Handelman writes, “Jess Day’s one-sided personality relies on an assortment of quirks…” and goes on to argue that Jess’ lack of personal history and desires make her a “stunted character” that relies solely on her idiosyncrasies to entrance and entertain. To Handelman, Jess is more akin to a logo, like the Morton Salt girl, than a real character. Where did Jess come from? Where is she going? What does she want out life (other than to have geeky non-weird sex or thaw a turkey with her body heat)? We, the viewers, don’t know. But the bigger question is: do we need to know?

One answer is no, we don’t. New Girl is a sitcom and therefore requires less character development than a drama. Sure, there are lots of sitcom characters that do have life goals (Leslie Knope wants to be mayor, Lucy Ricardo wants to be a star), but there are also many that exist unentangled by aspirations (Cosmo Kramer, Tracy Jordan) who maintain themselves through their zany antics. For Handelman, “weird for weird’s sake isn’t compelling…It’s embarrassing”, but for modern audiences weird for weird’s sake is a staple of sitcom fare. Inexplicably weird characters like Jess have become part of sitcoms’ narrative language and viewers know how to interpret and enjoy them.

The more interesting answer, however, is that Jess’ lack of personal context is intentional. Each of the three guys Jess lives with have more of a backstory than her, so why the imbalance? Jess is purposefully atemporal; she is a sitcom experiment in minimalism. How bare can we paint this character and still hold our audience? Let’s even make our theme song a cheeky reference to it:

Hey girl, whatcha doin?/Hey girl, where you going?/Who’s that girl?/ It’s Jess!

There are other examples of New Girl’s subtle meta-humor that suggest Jess’ character may be more than just inconsistent writing. In the episode “Bells”, a good-natured spoof of Glee, Jess is a rather inept, but unconditionally accepting, teacher trying to help disillusioned kids by introducing them to music. “Kryptonite”, the only episode so far that features people or events from Jess’ past, introduces her ex-boyfriend Spencer, the center of her ethos, and recalls Deschanel’s indie film 500 Days of Summer.

Maybe I’m giving New Girl too much credit. Maybe its Golden Globe nod is based solely on its shiny, bubbly surface. If so, then I have some parting advice for New Girl: Hey there, tiger. You have the foundation and opportunity to be funny AND smart. Don’t give in and deliver Jess’ backstory episode. Embrace her wonderful inexplicability, add a dash more self-awareness, and let her play confidently and intelligently with her role as the forever new girl.

New Year’s Resolutions: TV 2012

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. If you really want to do something, why wait for the new year to decide to do it? But when it comes to TV, making some resolutions (and maybe predictions) makes sense. With a bunch of new shows premiering and some old favorites waiting in the wings, New Years is a perfect time to decide which shows to tune in and which to tune out. Of the debuts, here’s what I plan on (voluntarily) watching in 2012:

Potential New Favorites

Luck. If you read my review of the pilot, you know that I’m basically already in love with this show.

Justified. This isn’t a debut, but I’m a little late to the Harlan County party. I’ve been catching up, and sometimes there’s nothing better than breaking into a new show knowing you have several seasons of uninterrupted viewing ahead.

Smash. I liked Glee for about 30 seconds. I really did. But after about two episodes the narrative voice of the show started to crack, and up sprouted the weed garden of inconsistencies. Smash, you are my new musical-on-TV fix.

On The Fence

Alcatraz. Reviews for JJ Abrams latest creation are mixed. Dull plots and obvious twists seem to be the biggest offenders, but for you, Sam Neill, I’ll give it a shot.

Awake. This show has a really intriguing premise – a police officer wakes up after a car crash to find himself living in two realities, one in which his wife survived the crash but his son did not, and the other in which his son survived but his wife is dead – and a great leading man, Jason Isaacs. So why am I on the fence about it? Two reasons: 1) The conceit of the show is based around the theory of quantum immortality, and I’m a total geek so that’s music to my ears, but incredibly difficult to pull off. 2) It’s on NBC.

So Bad It Demands One Viewing

Work It. If you haven’t heard about this show, just Google it. I’m not going to even summarize the premise. It doesn’t deserve that.

Top Ten TV Shows In 2011

Meth shenanigans, Austenian redux, zombies, and dawning enlightenment.

1. Breaking Bad Like a modern day Heart of Darkness, Breaking Bad continues to masterfully chart chem-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White’s descent into immorality. Bad is addictive, and this season delivered perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the series.

2. Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes’ ode to Austen may not have been on your radar because it aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, but if romantic period dramas brimming with meaningful lingering looks, sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, witticisms, and Dame Maggie Smith are your thing (let’s be honest, everyone loves Maggie Smith), you need to watch this show.

3. Community One part TV show and one part grand experiment – can we make a critical observation about My Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction that ends in a poop joke? Or how about an anime sequence about Foosball just to test the waters for an entire anime episode? – Community is perhaps the smartest show on TV. Unfortunately, like other smart shows that came before it (#SaveOurBluths), Community currently faces the ratings ax. Instead, we get Whitney.

4. Homeland The return of Claire Danes and the complex political TV thriller, Homeland is 24 meets The West Wing with a savvy post 9/11 perspective and a captivating story arc that makes it the most talked about new show of 2011.

5. The Good Wife A study of the modern id couched in a smart procedural format that riffs on current events, The Good Wife showcases human nature, which carefully orchestrates and twists societal and legal rules to its advantage. At the center of this Hobbesian universe is a strong woman who confronts and redefines the titular characteristics at every turn.

6. Enlightened The best show on TV that you’re not watching, Enlightened is sometimes a maelstrom and sometimes a gentle breeze, but it is constantly, urgently, gently, pushing and at the heart of it all is Laura Dern who has immersed herself so deeply in the painfully genuine Amy Jellicoe that you don’t realize how brilliant the show is until you let Amy in.

7. The Walking Dead Last season saw Rick Grimes and gang moving often and quickly, but this season has so far been about immobility. Each week felt like the characters were on the edge of a cliff, and any number of things could push them into the abyss, not the least of them being Shane’s alpha male huffing and puffing (and blowing out Otis’ kneecap). In reality, not much happened from week to week, but to the show’s great credit, The Walking Dead managed to maintain its heart-stopping tension.

8. Parks and Recreation Eternally optimistic and dedicated Leslie Knope would seem a rarity amongst government employees, but not in Pawnee, Indiana where effervescent optimism seems to fortify the drinking water and even curmudgeons Ron Swanson and April Ludgate have good intentions hidden behind their misanthropic refrain. Parks and Rec’s bubbly do-gooder mission remains refreshing amidst the often depressing media landscape.

9. Game of Thrones They said it was un-filmable, but like the Lannisters, HBO laughs in the face of danger and high price tags. A brooding and intricate epic of the caliber rarely seen outside of miniseries territory, Game of Thrones demands your loyalty and pays you back by subverting expectations and not coddling you with simplification. Also, what would you say about the weather if you couldn’t say, “Winter Is Coming?”

10. New Girl Quirky, and though I hate to say it, “adorkable,” New Girl is a love/hate half-hour of TV, and I think that’s good. Shows that polarize their audiences usually have a strong voice (like the aforementioned Enlightened), and New Girl is nothing if not it’s own brand of comedy. Deschanel’s Jess is this generation’s Seinfeld, the actor inextricable from the character and seemingly unaware of absurdity. New Girl won’t likely find itself on many TV top ten lists, but I think its interpretation of the sitcom will have an impact and therefore merits a place (albeit, barely) on this list.

Cross posted at The Faster Times


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